ROME – At a time when relationships of all kinds are being impacted by ongoing lockdowns related to the coronavirus pandemic and the strain of prolonged isolation, the Vatican’s top man on family matters has said that rebuilding these social bonds begins at home.

With COVID-19 still ravaging much of the world, and people increasingly isolated, now is an ideal time to “boldly announce the Gospel of the Family,” said American Cardinal Kevin Farrell during an online workshop dedicated to the family.

Head of the Vatican department for Laity, Family, and Life, Farrell said the family “responds better to any other social reality, to the thirst for dialogue, for deep relations, and authentic communication,” which many people are being starved of during coronavirus lockdowns.

Even at the social level, “the pandemic has brought out very clearly the indispensable role of the family,” Farrell said, noting that “It is families who have sustained people in these difficult months of isolation…It is from the family, therefore, that we need to start again out of this health crisis to re-construct society.”

Farrell spoke at a two-day virtual forum on “Discernment in the Family Sphere,” which is being organized by Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University and the Vatican department for Laity, Family, and Life as part of the wider year of “Amoris Laetitia Family,” based on Pope Francis’s 2016 exhortation on the family bearing the same name.

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Amoris Laetitia itself is a product of the 2014-2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family, which among other things, touched on sensitive issues such as the need to be more welcoming to individuals with same-sex attraction and the reception of the sacraments by Catholics who are divorced and remarried without an annulment.

The document also emphasized the blessing of family life and the challenges that families face in the modern world, including those posed by technology and the trend toward increasingly virtual interaction, rather than physical social relationships.

Concern about increasing individualism and loneliness as a result of this has skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic, with schools, workplaces, and places of social gathering being shut down and digitized.

In his remarks during Friday’s opening session, Farrell pointed to the “drastic social changes” taking place during COVID-19, such as social distancing rules, the suspension of public events, the increased trend of smart-working and distance learning, as well as the simple fear of being infected.

“All this runs the risk of people retreating into themselves and to unconsciously close themselves in individualism,” he said,  warning that this “can become a mental and spiritual attitude” the longer the pandemic goes on.

“It’s as if one began to say to themselves, ‘I do not need others. In fact, I feel better without them. I can get used to living alone,” he said, calling this “a deception” that became obvious after the first few weeks of global lockdowns in 2020.

Without healthy relationships with other people, “our psychology and our spirit begin to struggle immediately,” Farrell said, stressing what he called “the vital need to rediscover and understand” the value of meaningful human relationships, the exchange of views and ideas, the opening of one’s heart to another person, and cooperation in everyday work.

Pointing to Pope Francis’s encyclical on human fraternity Fratelli Tutti, Farrell said fraternity and social friendship are “two essential dimensions of being human, and thus of civil society, which no one can do without.”

“Nobody can think of themselves as an island,” he said, calling the pandemic the perfect time for the celebration and strengthening of family that the year of Amoris Laetitia is hoping to offer.

“Faced by the threat of widespread individualism and faced by the need for a renewal of friendship and social interaction, we can say that the family is par excellence the place for authentic human relations,” he said.

Families, Farrell noted, are the place where deep and lasting interpersonal relationships are first developed, where communication happens at all levels, including on the emotional level, and where cooperation in working toward common goals is learned.

“It is the place in which we can be together freely and disinterestedly, with the sole interest in being in the presence of others, being in their company in a communion and sharing of everyday life,” he said.

Referring to the forum’s theme of discernment within families, Farrell called it “a very current topic” with practical implications for families today.

Discernment, he said, is not something that stops once a couple decides to get married. Rather, it continues for “the whole path of family life with its everyday choices,” whether they involve major changes, times of difficulty or crisis, or normal daily choices involving the couple and their children and relatives.

“Discernment, therefore, is not an isolated episode relegated to the time of engagement, but it is a permanent spiritual disposition which is to be taught to families and which can be upheld in orienting prudently and wisely their choices throughout the course of life,” he said.

Similarly, Jesuit Father Nuno da Silva Gonçalves, rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University, called families “the place of guaranteed forgiveness,” and said they should also be places of guaranteed discernment.

“Pope Francis wants discernment to be at the center of the life of the Church, and it must also be at the center of the family, the domestic church,” he said. “Therefore, I see the family as being the place to be attentive to the signs of the times, the place of attention to those who are closest to us, the place to learn with the intelligence of the heart, the language of God.”

Gonçalves said there can be no discernment without prayer, and stressed the need for couples to establish a solid spiritual life and to foster a culture of mutual listening and discernment inside the home.

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